Bad Astronomy

Why is Our Government Attacking Science?

What the hell is going on with my government?

Capitol smoke

Original photo by krossbow on Flickr, modified by Phil Plait

I’m used to attacks on science; they’ve been endemic for years now. Antivaxxers, global warming deniers, creationists, what have you. And I’ve even gotten used to, at some level, egregiously antiscience rhetoric and machinations from government officials.

But over the past few days and weeks things seem to have gone to 11. I’m reeling from the absolute unfettered nonsense and sheer manipulation going on by our elected officials, and I’ll be honest: It’s scary.

To start, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who is a global warming denier, by the way, is the head of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. He has recently decided that the National Science Foundation—a globally respected agency of scientific research and investigation—should no longer use peer review to fund grants. Instead it should essentially get political permission for which research to fund.

This is not a joke. Smith wants politics to trump science at the National Science Foundation.

This prompted a brilliantly indignant letter from Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), who calls this idea “destructive” to science. She’s right. What Smith is doing strongly reminds me of Lysenkoism, when the Soviet government suppressed science on genetics and evolution that didn’t toe the party line.

In these attacks on the NSF, a few lines of research have been highlighted that sound silly out of context. We’ve seen this before from those on the far right who attack science, from Sarah Palin to the Wall Street Journal. But when you look more deeply into the research you usually find it’s actually quite important, leading to new insights in biology, medicine, and more.

While government funds science and should have oversight to make sure that funding is fairly granted, the best people to make the decisions about what constitutes good science are the scientists themselves, not agenda- and ideologically-driven politicians.

And there’s a bigger picture here as well. The entire endeavor of science must be allowed the freedom to pursue ideas wherever they lead, and must have the flexibility to pursue ideas that may not pan out. From a financial view, the ones that work invariably subsidize the ones that don’t. We can’t know in advance what lines of research will yield results, but the ones that do succeed benefit us, increasing our knowledge vastly and leading to a better understanding of the world. That’s a critical human endeavor, even ignoring the vast, overwhelming material benefit we get from scientific advances. And the huge return on investment we get as well.

What Smith is advocating is incredibly dangerous. When a society’s government starts dictating what can and cannot be investigated, scientific and creative progress stalls. Lysenko’s work, advocated by Stalin, led to the USSR falling almost irretrievably behind other, more progressive countries; ones like the United States.

That was a hard-won lesson in history for the Soviets, but apparently lost on many current American politicians.

Even leaders who support science are making terrible decisions right now that will have long-term consequences for American science. President Obama and the White House put out a budget for NASA that eviscerates planetary exploration. Not only that, it completely zeroes out NASA’s mission-specific education and public outreach (EPO) efforts (each mission has a separate budget allocated for EPO)*. The NASA budget and press release at the time were vague on details, but it’s now clear that the proposal will irreversibly damage NASA’s EPO, moving it to other agencies. That’s crazy. And I do mean 100 percent sheer craziness.

While these other venues (the Smithsonian Institution, the Department of Education, and, ironically, the NSF) are excellent groups, they are not prepared to take on NASA’s load of educational work. The experience and foundations built over many years will evaporate if this happens. And the real losers will be the American public, who clearly love NASA outreach. Why on Earth would you want to wipe out one of the most successful missions NASA does?

The American Astronomical Society, the largest organization of professional astronomers in the country, put out a statement expressing concern over this. I’ve been hearing outcries from all over the education community as well. The AAS statement calls the education proposal “deeply concerning”—a polite and politic phrasing really meaning “Holy crap what are you thinking?”

The only hope here is that Congress will not support the President’s budget, and their own version will restore these lost capabilities. Yes, Congress. After everything I wrote above, the irony is not lost on me.

The list goes on and on, of course. In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law a rule that will allow public money to go to religious private schools that teach creationism. There, at least, people like Zack Kopplin and others are fighting back. If you live in Louisiana, they can use your help, and I mean right now. Today.

And buzzing like a background hum in all of this is the sheer load of antiscience representatives sitting on the House Science Committee.

I have this awful feeling in the pit of my stomach, one I haven’t had since the Bad Old Days of George W. Bush’s administration, when scientific reports were routinely censored, when appointees with no qualifications and who were blatantly and arrogantly antiscience were put into positions of power in agencies like NASA, when science was essentially being rounded up and locked into a dark cupboard.

I know I focus a lot on these attacks coming from the far right—because that’s where the overwhelming majority originate—but in truth they’re coming from all directions, and it’s up to us to do something about it. Write your representative, write your senator. Tell them, politely, that you support science, you support the NSF’s ability to make its own decisions, you want NASA’s planetary budget to increase, not decrease, and that you support NASA’s own ability to reach out to the public.

Those government officials may be the ones doing all these awful things, but we’re the ones who, in the end, decide if they can even be in the position to make these attacks. And we need to do something about it.

*Correction (May 2, 2013 at 14:30 UTC): I originally said all of NASA’s EPO budget was zeroed out, but only the mission-specific budget has been eradicated. “Only” is a funny word here, since that is a major part of NASA’s outreach. Full disclosure: I worked for several years at Sonoma State University, paid with mission-specific EPO grants. Much of that funding goes into creating science, tech, engineering, and math educational efforts in the classrooms. The loss of this funding would be a huge loss.